Category Archives: The Dilemma of Holiness

The Dilemma of Holiness

Some of you read that title and gasped. I suspect that most read it and nodded in agreement. So what’s so difficult about holiness?

The Command

Before we understand the difficulty, we need to understand that holiness is something that God asks of His people. God made it clear very early on that He was holy and that expected the same from His people. Leviticus 11:44 gives us the very first express call to holiness: “I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground.”

But God’s call to holiness did not die with the last chapter Malachi. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 4:22, 24: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” Many other New Testament scriptures make it clear that holiness, or being “set apart” to God and living like a “set apart” one, is still a priority to God.

So where’s the dilemma? God’s Word commands us to be holy, so we should be holy, right?

Two Initial Questions

Well, two issues immediately surface. The first question is at the heart of our discussion; I’ll only mention it here as we’ll be spending more time on it later this week. Are we called to be holy, or are we made holy through the death of Christ on the cross? Hebrews 12:14 makes it abundantly clear that we are expected to pursue holiness; yet 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us that it’s through Christ’s payment for sin we become the righteousness of God. So does God want us striving to be holy or does he want us to find our holiness in Christ? We’ll talk about the answer to that later.

The next obvious question is: if we are called to be holy, why is it so difficult? (This takes on even greater significance if Christ is the One that makes us holy.) Any honest Christian will tell you that the struggle still exists. I’ve never met a Christian yet who had completely mastered sin. Lust still burns, pride still swells and lies still surface. If God has called us and empowered us to be holy, why can’t we seem to have victory over sin?

Why No Victory?

There are several reasons, but the first and most common reason for failure is an incorrect view of God and an incorrect motive for living a holy life. We so often frame God in our own culture, our own circumstance and our own presuppositions, creating an image that is more Ego than Divine. That’s why the Reformation was such a big moment in the history of Christianity; because Sola Scriptura meant a return to the God-breathed Scriptures for direction instead of the tide of man’s opinion. We are often more concerned about getting caught or achieving victory than obedience to God. Joseph realized when he was tempted by Potiphar’s wife that having sex with her was bigger than just two people in a room; he considered it a “sin against God”. The quickest way to achieve failure in your Christian life is to make holy living all about checking off a calendar and feeling good about yourself. Victory is not commanded; obedience is.

Another reason we fail is because we have categorized sin in our mind. The old folks can’t believe how lewd the young people are, but think little of their gluttony or worry. The young folks are quick to point out the pride of the elders, but take no thought of a lie now and then. You will never have victory over sin in your life if you are not grieved by the insult that all sin is to God. As soon as you are willing to wink at some sins and bark at others, holiness stops being about honoring God’s character and starts being about your crusade against the world.

The Reason For Holiness

Yesterday we spent time dealing with some inital questions about holiness. We discussed some of the reasons why Christians often fail to have victory when holiness is a promised birthright. One of the things that we didn’t do was explain just exactly what holiness is and why it’s so important.

The Measuring Rod

Go all the way back to the beginning of time and you’ll find an angel craving God’s position so badly that he was condemned to hell. Skip ahead a bit and the scene changes to a woman being tempted by a snake beside a fruit tree. The temptation was not a mouth-watering fruit; it was the desire to “be like God.” These are the first two sins recorded in the Bible, both driven by the intense desire to be in the place of God.

Sin found it’s roots in trying to sidestep God, which makes perfect sense because God is the measure of all holiness. Jerry Bridges defines holiness as “nothing less than conformity to the character of God.” Living an unholy life then is the ultimate coup d’├ętat, the prime statement of protest against God Himself.

1 John 1:5 tells us that “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” His nature is the very definition of holiness. Until we begin to understand just who God is and how holy He is, we can’t really grasp how grotesque a violation sin is.

The God That Does Not Wink

The significance of this might not have hit you yet, so I’ll do the honors of swinging the bat. In Habakkuk 1:13, the prophet Habakkuk said that “[God’s] eyes are too pure to look on evil; [He] cannot tolerate wrong.” This perfect God who is the measure of holiness cannot tolerate wrong. Because He is the standard by which holiness is measured, any violation of that standard would be antithetical to His person.

The size of the violation does not matter. It may be a lie, it may be pride and it may be raping a child–each of these constitutes a breach of God’s holiness and thereby put us at odds with Him. Because God Himself is endless and boundless, His hatred of sin is also endless and boundless. The sooner we understand that our sin is an affront to who God is, the sooner we can experience holiness in our lives.

The God That Weeps

The idea is troubling; unholy living is a violation of God’s character. But understanding the ramifications behind the idea is even more troubling. Psalms 66:18 warms that cherishing sin in our hearts will turn away God’s ear. This violation isn’t just a judge banging a gavel and doling out judgement; it’s a groom weeping for his bride’s impurity. There is a relationship at work here, and every sin is a sorrow pang in the heart of our Saviour.

The Dilemma Resurfaces

We spent time yesterday discussing how sin is not just a misstep, but rather a desecration of God’s character, which is the true measure of holiness. The conclusion? Holiness matters to God; we cannot approach Him without holiness.

Uh-oh. No one is naturally holy. Romans 3:23 reminds us of that. No need to worry though, because this dilemma is as easy to figure out as the Gospel itself because it IS the Gospel. Just a few chapters later Romans gives us hope when it reminds us that we have been reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ.

The Dilemma Resurfaces

And with that joyful news of reconciliation comes also the question posed on day 1. Hebrews 10:10 states plainly: “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” You can’t get much more straightforward than that. Christ’s sacrifice was efficient in making us holy, once for all.

But turn over the page to chapter 12, verse 14, and you’ll find an apparent contradiction: “follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord:” The New International Version translates that word “follow” this way: “Make every effort”. Effort? Isn’t that another way of saying “work”? Is holiness something we work towards or are we made holy through the death of Christ on the cross? There has to be some kind of resolution, especially considering these two statements appear in the same book.

Holy by Birth

The writers of Scripture must have had quite a task. Trying to convey the immortal Divine in terms that mortal humanity could grasp is no small feat. It’s no mistake that one of the most frequently used metaphors for salvation is being “born again” and becoming a “child of God”; placing your faith in Christ is tantamount to the very moment your head (or feet) popped out of the womb, a brand new member of God’s family.

When once you repent and turn to Christ, the penalty He paid on the cross is now applied to you. Even though you couldn’t ever be holy enough (see Isaiah 64:6), it doesn’t matter because Christ’s righteousness is applied to you. God does not see your unholiness, He simply sees Jesus, who died because of your unholiness. The payment has been made and you are now viewed as holy by God because of Christ. (Theologians like to call this positional sanctification, since we are now made holy by our position in Christ.)

Holy by Choice

The moment you are born into God’s family, you have decisions to make. Your choices can either honor God’s character (holiness) or violate His glory (unholiness). Your choices will not make you any more or less a part of God’s family, but they will reflect what you believe about God’s family. Passing erotic photos around to your coworkers will not make you “unborn again”, but it will certainly be screaming to those around you that you don’t like the family you’re in.

Take for instance a child who is born a king. As king, he has every right and privilege afforded the title. There are days when he loves being king and others when he’d rather be a peasant; but he is a king by birth. As he grows older, he is faced with choices; each one can either be a kingly decision or a shameful, cowardly decision. He may be living in such a way that no one respects him as a king or worse yet, his kingdom is taken from him. (My kingdom for a horse!) But that does not change the fact that he was born a king.

Cart vs. Horse

Don’t get the cart before the horse. Holiness is not a requirement for salvation. In fact, realizing you aren’t holy is the first big step towards reconciliation with God. Holiness is, however, a response to salvation. Now read James 2:14-26 with that in mind. And before you throw your Bible away, frustrated at Phillipians 1:12: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”, be sure to read to verse 13: “for it is God which works in you”.

And it’s amazing how much “working out” your salvation helps to ground your faith; but we’ll save that for tomorrow.

Holiness, The Great Battle

John Wesley, one of great 19th century revivalists, taught that a Christian could attain “entire sanctification” or sinless perfection here on this earth. His understanding of 2 Timothy 3:17 led him to believe that by “perfect”, Paul meant to imply that a person can reach a point where the sin desire is eradicated. Unfortunately, many still struggled with sin and turned to despair because they could not reach this perfection Wesley preached, but were instead pockmarked with failure and missteps.

Bearing the Cross

What Wesley’s teachings failed to emphasize was our responsibility to daily take up our cross. His Calvinism was showing here; Wesley would say that any genuine Christian is called by God and therefore could and should attain perfection. He might also take us to 1 John 3:9 in defense of sinless perfection. But this verse doesn’t teach sinless perfection. This is a call to holiness; this is a call to live out the purity and holiness afforded us with our new nature. Just one chapter earlier, in 2 Timothy 2:21, God makes it clear that the reponsibility for being usable vessels falls into our hands. In fact, one letter earlier, in 1 Timothy 4:7, Paul explains to Timothy that godliness is something that can be reached, in part, by excercising.

The first time I stood on a soccer field to play, I was terrible. I was playing, but it was a pathetic showing. After years and years of excercising and practicing, I became far more capable that I had been the first time I set foot on that field. So even though I was on the team and still considered a player, I did not play as well when I first began than I do now.

Living the Position

So it is with holiness. We have no strength to be holy, save through the power of the Spirit and the redemption of Christ. But this strength infuses our newborn bodies and it takes excercise before we can walk with steady legs. The Bible makes it clear that we can still refuse to avail ourselves of that holy power; only when we claim our God-given role and let that positional reality start effecting our practical reality will we see holiness.

Bob Wilkin said it best in is treatise “Do Born Again People Sin?”, “1 John 1:8,10 [says] that believers cannot attain to sinless perfection in their experience. However, we can allow our new natures to dominate our experience so that we live consistently godly lives. May we live like who we are: children of the Holy One who has saved us by His amazing, free grace.”

Considering the Battle

Throughout the Scriptures, sin is often addressed with severe, military-like action. Ephesians 6 draws the parallel between our spiritual tools and the weapons of war. Satan is called our adversary and he is described as a lion who is seeking for people to devour.

Let’s spend a moment in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;” “Casting down” and “bringing into captivity” are not playtime phrases. Casting down was what was done to idols in the Old Testament. And read “bringing into captivity” as “taking prisoners”. You don’t take prisoners in a baseball game. You don’t take prisoners in Scrabble. You take prisoners when you are at war.

Our battle to live holy lives is a war that exists between who we are in Christ and the propensity to sin within our flesh. Genuine saving faith is demonstrated by giving aid and comfort to the Spirit of the Living God while denying reinforcements to the forces of the flesh.

CORRECTION: Wesley was not a Calvinist; in fact, he was a pioneer of the Arminianism we know today. I drew my conclusions from a misreading of the chapter on Holiness in George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture.

Practical Holiness

In our first few studies on holiness, we talked a good deal about the theory behind it all. We explored the fact that holiness is a violation of God’s character. We learned that holiness is not about having victory over sin but rather obeying God. We even spent time working through the concept of our positional holiness versus our practical holiness.

What’s In It For Me?

But today is the last day of our study, so let’s digress a bit and talk about what we get out of the whole thing. Sure, we obey God because He deserves our obedience; but the Scripture is full of promise and reward. We serve a God who loves to bless those who seek Him.

So what are some of the blessings of holy living? We’ve already touched on some of the most obvious benefits, so I’ll just mention them briefly. Psalms 66:18 reminds us that holy living keeps our fellowship with God strong. Hebrews 12:6 lets us know that if we aren’t living holy lives, God will discipline us; so a holy life is a life filled with God’s favor. But lets jump down the rabbit-hole; you’ll find it goes much deeper.

The Him in ‘Follow Me’

In 1 Corinthians 11:1, you’ll find Paul making a fairly shocking statement. If you turned on the television and heard and evangelist say this, you might just switch the channel. “Be ye followers of me…” What cult leader makes a statement like this? Before you pour the Kool-Aid, realize that Paul goes on to qualify this statement: “even as I also am of Christ.” He can tell people to follow in his footsteps only so far as they match those of the Savior.

But the real significance here is that Paul’s life becomes an example of right living because he is pursuing holiness. The greatest reproach to the Gospel is a Christian steeped in hypocrisy; the greatest proof is a Christian steeped in holiness. Falling down can be weary business, and often many lose heart. Your holy example coupled with your loving encouragement can make a world of difference.

Sure, the dramatic stories of drug dealers coming to Jesus gives us all a little excitement; but what a rare and precious thing it is to be able to say to your children, your spouse, your friends: “If God could carry a poor wretch like me into holiness, He can surely strengthen you!”

Spiritual Alzheimers

Perhaps one of the most amazing lessons I’ve learned about the blessings of holiness is found in 2 Peter 1. Peter sets the stage in verse 3 by explaining that God’s divine power has given us everything we need. He goes further: “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.” God has, through the promises in His Word, allowed us to partake, or share in the attributes, of His nature.

Verses 5 through 7 then list some of the things that we should be “adding”, and adding diligently, to our faith. Some of you are starting to swoon at the thought of a works-based salvation, but don’t forget–our holy living is a response to salvation, not a requirement. In fact, verse 8 make it clear that we ought to do these things as “fruit” of our knowledge.

And what’s more… verse 9 makes it crystal clear that a person not doing these things, not living a holy life, will be “blind” and will forget that his sins have been forgiven. In short, the more you indulge in unholiness, the more elusive spiritual assurance will be in your life.

When I was younger, I was caught in the all-too-familiar cycle of “getting saved”, sinning, feeling like I wasn’t saved because of my sin and “getting saved” again. This went on and on for years until I came across this chapter, and it revolutionized my thinking. Instead of thinking, “I did something wrong; therefore I must not be saved” I started thinking “I did something wrong; therefore I’ve hurt my relationship with God, and I need to confess it.”

See, this saved-sin-sorry-saved-sin cycle is really just a cop out, a grasping for something to blame the failure on. Instead of taking responsibility for your actions, you’re shifting the blame to Christ. Each time you kneel down and ask Him to “save you again”, you’re basically saying, “God, it didn’t work last time, so here I am again, I’m hoping You get it right this time”. A true believer still struggles with sin; but the answer is not rebirth, it is confession.

The Cure For Blindness

But holy living helps us avoid all of that “blindness” and keeps firmly fixed on the doorposts of our mind the idea that we are bought with a price and that we must glorify God with our bodies, because they are His. That is a true gist of holiness; honoring God’s purity in His strength with every action of our lives, no matter how difficult, no matter how small.